It’ll be a privilege
This post was written shortly after the murder of George Floyd at the end of Spring 2020. Events pertaining to racial inequalities and police brutality after the initial weeks of protests are not mentioned. Also noting that this post is American centric as it is based from my point of view.
May 2020. It’s been a couple of months into Shelter-in-place, my friend and I were talking about how we’ve missed traveling. I mentioned visiting New Orleans. Curious as always, she asked, “why New Orleans in particular?” To which I answered, “actually, I just wanna visit the Deep South in general.” Underneath that array of text words stemmed a genuine curiosity about that part of America. I believe part of being a good American citizen is learning and understanding what makes America great. America is the land of opportunities and a melting pot of nationalities, culture, and ethnicities. Traveling is one of the most effective ways of raising my awareness. I get to immerse myself into the culture and history of the community. In New Orleans, I want to know about what’s happening outside of Bourbon Street. I want to know how it’s been happening since Hurricane Katrina. Aside from Miami, Nashville, and Atlanta, I’ve never been in the South. I want to know about life in the bayous, and learn more about the Cajun and Creole culture. Diving deeper, I want to learn about plantation houses, the Confederacy, and the lives that were affected by this particular part of American history.
We can’t dismiss that African-Americans have played an integral role in making America. Aside from the history, I can’t ignore that the slang I use, the music I listen to, and what I wear are influenced in part by Black culture. Yet I really don’t know anything about Black culture. Outside of the general media, my experience is limited and I want to know more.
However the amount of recent news about Black people being treated unfairly was at a new high. It felt as if there were new articles and videos uploaded on an almost daily basis. COVID-19 data suggest that Black people have a higher chance getting infected and killed by the coronavirus. People of lower socioeconomic status, overrepresented by minorities, were hit the hardest. They lost jobs and healthcare coverage due to the arrested economy. Those who are still working as essential workers are at higher risk of getting exposed to COVID-19 as the virus kills over 2,000 people per day across the United States. COVID-19 not only brought to light the deficiencies in our healthcare system, it also brought an upsurge in discrimination against minorities.
There was a video recorded at Central Park of a “Karen” calling the cops on Christian Cooper exploiting his appearance as a Black man. Law abiding Black men who try to protect themselves from getting infected can’t wear masks without being mistaken for thugs. In that same period of time, there were the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. And then, the world watched George Floyd getting murdered on video.
And there I was. Fuck. In heavy gravity. Sinking.
Nothing new. This has happened before, but it didn’t help the pill go down any easier. I didn’t know how to express myself, I was just tired. Tired of the powerlessness. Tired of seeing something wrong happening repeatedly. Tired of jadedly succumbing to, “that’s just the way it is”.
I recognize that I’m far from being a political activist or a sociology expert so I won’t be hashing out policy solutions to fix today’s social problems. My observations, emotions, and rhetoric are based on my own struggles, experiences, and environment. We live peacefully in a violent society. We fear monger and punish to keep order. We indulge in a winner-takes-all narrative. Well, we don’t just indulge, we are indoctrinated to believe losers deserve nothing.
The whole systemic idea of winners and losers in itself is wrong. Being on the losing side means you worry about hospital bills over your health. It means peacekeepers and lawmakers work against you. It means your education can’t get you ahead no matter how good your grades are. It means, “why behave?”, when it doesn’t reward you. It means not wasting your time daydreaming at a dead end job when you have a dead end life.
Nobody wants to lose, especially the winners. Winners have this perception that they could disastrously lose everything. They don’t want anything to change. They’ll take all measures to maintain the status quo. Feigning ignorance is the easiest and most frequently used method.
Why do we think and act this way? Maybe our extreme individualistic and capitalistic values have manifested this competitive mindset. White vs Black, straight vs gay, and men vs women… whoever wins, shall rule the land. But life is not a zero-sum game. It absolutely cannot be. I refuse to believe that we, as a society, would have to kneel on each other’s necks to get ahead. I have no idea how the universe defines this morally but to me, it just… feels wrong.
It’s wrong that people are in survival mode their whole lives without any opportunity to get themselves out of it. It’s wrong that their fates have been written by a system that doesn’t seek to understand them. It’s wrong to force them into believing, “that’s just the way it is”. And it’s wrong to punish them for thinking otherwise. Whatever the reasons are, I’m not comfortable with it.
I’ve been trying to rationalize why I’m deeply uncomfortable with inequality and ignorance. Why do some of us feel this way, and others don’t. I believe each of us wants what’s best for ourselves and for our country. There’s no need to detail how we, as a nation, have become so divided. It’s obvious that a lot of our issues exist due to apathy and lack of empathy.
Empathy is a superpower to me. I can’t mirror your emotions. But I do believe your emotions are valid. I just can’t see them nor feel them without active attentiveness. If an empath is Superman, then I would be Batman — I wasn’t born with superpowers, but I’ll train hard and work with the physical tools I have. I’m gathering and sorting the facts and vibes for how I can move forward based on my definition of a good American citizen.
Pro-diversity programs and street marches have helped spread awareness about issues of inequality. What’s important is that we learn from these events, that we continue to find ways to connect with people that are different from us in our communities. It’s a lifelong mission of constant learning and communicating; hence me kindling the curiosity to learn about other cultures and the compulsion to write this blog. I’m writing about how I deal with oppression, and more importantly, it’s about how I feel when I see its effects on the people around me.
Before I go further, I want to let you know that I’m absolutely terrified of how I might be misinterpreted. I’m an Asian dude working in Tech, living comfortably as an engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Inside that bubble, I am reminded of what Dr. King referred to as a White moderate (without the White). I’m aware of my privileges.
Let’s go back to the 70’s, which was about 10 years before I was born. My family lived in the capital of Phnom Penh, culturally as Chinese. We owned a shoe factory and a few restaurants. My dad and his siblings were studying abroad in France. At the time, the Khmer Rouge communist movement eradicated 25% of Cambodia’s population, the genocide of 2 million citizens in 4 years. To make way for a Cambodian “master race”, the Khmer Rouge targeted educated business owners, which primarily consisted of minority Chinese-Cambodians. My family had privilege and we lost it all. My grandfather, along with many of my dad’s siblings and cousins, didn’t get out alive. Dad and the rest were lucky and were able to take refuge in France. Since then, my family has built ourselves up, thriving from the opportunities given in the West.
Growing up, my parents owned the only Chinese restaurant in a small town about an hour north of Paris. We were also the only Asian family who lived in a town where everyone knew each other. We got pretty popular. We stood out. That whole time, I believed it was because Dad was really cool. I told him that he was the most popular man in town. I played Sonic all day, earned medals in Karate, collected Dragonball Z cards, got top grades in school, spent summers in Boston. Life was good.
My slanty eyes and black hair were unique features like freckles and curly hair. Practicing Chinese customs played a tiny part of my identity. I was raised to live in a western world; my parents chose my name because it was applicable in both French and English. When classmates made fun of my eyes, I made fun of their nose. That’s all there was to it. I wasn’t aware of racial tensions.
Mind that this was just a singular experience. France is, or at least was, openly racist. I watched my school principal beat an Arab classmate with his briefcase. My Senegalese friend sometimes got angry for reasons I didn’t fully understand but knew it was due to his skin color. I received hateful slurs and had to routinely remind people that I didn’t eat dogs. I always thought racial hate stemmed from not fitting to western physical beauty standards. I felt shitty, but it didn’t hold me down from being who I really was. More importantly, it didn’t discourage me from trying to be whoever I wanted to be.
That was my naive thought when we moved to Boston. We settled in a predominantly White middle class suburb. I was the new foreign kid in school that barely spoke English. But there was no need for introductions because the kids already made up their impressions of me. They named me ‘Mao’ like Mao Zedong. They would greet me as ‘Mao’ outside of class, in the hallways, on the school bus, down the street walking home. They were everywhere. Boys, girls, older, in groups mostly. All laughing and degrading. I was bullied. Boston did not welcome me.
I tried all kinds of responses like ignoring them, laughing with them, and even retaliating. One time, I swung at someone as soon as I heard him say ‘Mao’. A faculty staff yelled at me for misbehaving, to which I roared back “What was I supposed to do??” He didn’t know. One winter, on my walk home, a car stopped a block down and 2 boys got out yelling “Mao, you’re dead” throwing snowballs at me. I received AOL messages of death threats warning me to, “go back to where I came from.” The principal assured he would report this to the police after I showed him the messages. But things never got better. I was 12, scared and confused. I couldn’t figure out what to do, and maybe there was nothing I could do.
My English got better though. I learned how to play football and basketball. I learned how to recite the pledge of allegiance. I learned to walk fast in between classes to avoid the bullies. I learned that friends didn’t side with me when I got ridiculed. Rather than becoming who I wanted to be, I spent time in fear and focused on proving to people who I was not. Whenever I lashed out, people dismissed my anger and hurt. They were quick to say I was wrong and it wasn’t worth the drama… That it was kids being kids and they didn’t know any better.
So I left Boston and went to California after high school. I studied at UC Davis where the demographic was close to 50% Asian. I was part of the majority. I stayed in the Asian culture themed dorms where I learned about the history of Asian immigration and culture. I was introduced to concepts like the glass ceiling, White imperialism, the model minority, the emasculation of Asian men and over-sexualization of Asian women. I realized I didn’t know as much about my culture as my roommates did. I couldn’t speak Chinese, and I was constantly reminded about how weird that was. I felt too white-washed. I was a banana. Yellow on the outside, white on the inside. I still didn’t fully belong. Ironic, huh? In Boston, being Asian stood in the way of being happy. And in college, not being Asian enough stood in the way of being happy.
To this day, I still feel shame with any reminder about my lack of Chinese fluency and culture. It was humiliating sitting at a dim sum roundtable getting smirked at for looking Chinese but not acting like one. Like I was a disgrace. “Why don’t you simply learn Chinese then?” they asked. I couldn’t. I refused to. How could I after so many years of being racially bullied by White people, only to end up not being accepted by my own kind? “Well that’s a shitty attitude” a friend said.
I recounted the times when my Chinese friends and elders have told me to my face that I’m not a “real Chinese”. They were right. I believed them. And I resented them. At that point, I was tired. Too fucking tired to be told what to do. So fuck it. Fuck all of it. All of these groupings and cliques have done nothing but inflict pain and leave me with loneliness!
That might sound dramatic but don’t get me wrong. I love my life. I still call myself a Bostonian after 18 years living in the Bay. I’m a very proud French-born Asian-American. Ultimately, I found a way to be whoever I wanted to be despite the hardships. I have lifelong friends and a supportive family. I cherish all the stages of my life dearly. I had a lot of opportunities to capitalize on. I have a lot to be grateful for, and I wouldn’t trade my experience with anything else.
Sometimes it’s not easy being Asian; fighting false stereotypes is a lifelong crusade. I want people to know that as an Asian man, I can be just as manly as anybody else. I speak English as well as anybody else. This country is my home, and I’m proud of it as much as anybody else. I didn’t come from China. I don’t put women down. I am not a model minority. I wish to be recognized for who I am as a person.
Yet, I intuitively believe my life is still relatively advantaged. Without concrete evidence, I can still recognize that being a cis straight male has benefitted me overall more than if I were not. I’m aware that I can’t fully understand what it’s like to be Black, or a woman, or gay, or born in the wrong body… if anything, I’d probably be angrier at the world. But I can try to imagine and empathize.
I can imagine the day-to-day stress, frustration, and toil of constantly needing to assert my rightfully earned accomplishments and salary as a woman; Or of being blamed and labeled the scapegoat of power imbalance and White supremacy as a Jewish person; Or of ensuring that I have to always be at my best behavior with the police, pressing leadership to invest in my community, and reminding everyone that my life matters too as a Black person.
Other groups like the Native Americans, Muslims, LGBTQ community, Latinos, those with physical or mental disabilities and many more with disadvantaged backgrounds have experienced their own sets of hardships. And as the lowest common denominator, all of us deserve a system that is built on individual dignity, basic health, and proper education. I believe it’s not about who’s winning the Oppression Olympics. We are more similar than we are different. And when we see the system being unfair to ourselves and one another, we need to speak up and address it.
I wasn’t dealt the Royal Flush but my hand wasn’t the worst. And I’m not sure if I’m playing my cards right. But at least I got a chance at playing without hindrance. I work with what I have using what I was given to improve my situation. To have the freedom and autonomy as individuals in defining our own successes and failures, that society set the rules fairly in the interest of our collective well-being — I wish we could all live that way. I guess this is where I can empathize. We’re all human beings trying to make it in life.
My background isn’t particularly unique. It’s a typical immigrant story. But my story and my struggles define me. They may not match your struggles. But our human emotions are real and universal. That’s how we can connect; that’s the beauty of it. So I want to hear your story. We’ve all been judged without a chance to prove people wrong. We’ve all felt less than human interpersonally and systemically. We’ve all fought hard to stand our grounds, to prove our worth, and to hold onto our identities. That’s why each of our lives matter. We define our lives ourselves. And we want people to know that we deserve human decency.
I might not be the right person to solve these problems. Our nation’s divide will require more than words to become united. But since moving to Boston, learning about John F. Kennedy has been inspiring me to ask myself what I can do for my country. So to begin, I can visit New Orleans and the South to know more about Black history, also known as American history. It’s imperative to me as an American to gain awareness and insights in the cultures of my fellow neighbors. It’s a journey that I’m embarking on for as long as I love this country with its good, bad, and ugly.
Interpersonally, I can start by asking questions and being open to learning about you. I can help build a safe environment, lend an ear, and seek to understand. Connect with what makes you you. Understand what makes you beyond how biology defines you. Love what makes you special beyond what society labels you. Your soul holds absolutely everything about you. Similar to how mine also holds everything about me. And just like mine, it must be acknowledged. It must know that it matters. Knowing about it enriches and educates us. There’s value in each of our unique experiences.
I have no idea why that is. But it explains why we must work to stay positive for humanity. It explains why we need to keep advocating for equality. We’re all we got. A positive-sum game with so much to gain and nothing to lose. Just the way it should be. It’ll be a privilege to understand you, and I hope you’d feel the same with me. Maybe if we could connect like that with everyone else, then we’d finally be free and at peace. Maybe then the world will be less hateful, one connection at a time. One can hope.